McVeigh’s execution stirs religious debate

TUSCALOOSA - The strongest argument death penalty advocates have is sitting in a prison in Terre Haute, Ind., waiting for Monday when he is scheduled to be the first federal execution carried out since 1963.

He's also the strongest argument for those who object.

And for people of faith, the debate is difficult, but nothing new.

On its face, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's crime almost begs for such a punishment. What is the price one should pay for taking 168 lives, after all, if it is not one's own?

But although McVeigh has dominated the news for months, several religious leaders in Tuscaloosa said they haven't spoken about the issue or tried to gauge the opinions of their congregations. They say that to whatever side people held, McVeigh was not going to change their minds.

Even the worst of criminals deserves a chance at redemption, said the Rev. Schmidt Moore, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church and president of the Tuscaloosa Ministerial Alliance. McVeigh's judgment should come from powers higher than earthly ones, he said.

"Taking his life will not bring back one life. It will not heal a wound," he said. A more appropriate punishment, he said, would be life imprisonment.

"There should be some harsh punishment for such a hateful crime, but it should come with an attempt to reform and change the person."

The Rev. Dick Emory, pastor of First Wesleyan Church, supports the death penalty, saying execution is not paying back an act of violence with another, but represents the meting out of justice.

"It's a necessary part of justice," he said. "It's not revenge; rather, it puts a strong value on human life."

Emory believes there is Scriptural precedent allowing the state to carry out such punishment if it deems it necessary.

"Scripture indicates that God delegated to the state issues like this, to reinforce a high view of human life. We are to be submissive to government authorities, who have the inherent right to enforce its laws."

An eye for an eye

Whatever the stance, the Rev. Ken Fields, rector at Canterbury Episcopal Chapel in Tuscaloosa believes it is the duty of religious leaders, as society's moral arbiters, to speak out.

"The job of ministers is to speak what they perceive as God's truth, to effect a charge in the people of God," he said. Fields' own denomination has officially taken a stand against the death penalty, and it is the practice of the Bishop of the North Alabama diocese to send a plea for clemency for every person put to death.

"It has nothing to do with guilt," Fields said. "It has everything to do with the morality of the state putting someone to death.

"Part of our responsibilities as ministers is to interpret contemporary events as Christ would have us respond."

The Pope, in his 1995 encyclical and several other homilies since then, has called for an end to the death penalty. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, beginning in 1958, came out in opposition to the death penalty.

And in 1999, a joint committee of the National Council of Synagogues and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement calling for an end to the death penalty.

On the other side, the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2000 issued its own statement in support of capital punishment, saying it was time the convention spoke out in favor of "a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death."

The SBC took such a stance in order to go on record with its support for authority guided by Scripture, said Rev. Herbert Thomas, pastor of Circlewood Baptist Church.

"God established a pattern of judgment by using people in authority to execute that judgment, because laws have to be carried out in a proper way," he said.

"This is the law of the land, hard as that is. The Lord said the wages of sin is death, and as we sow, so shall we reap."

Thomas said he respects the views of those who disagree with him, but added, "Everyone can't be a pacifist. It's like in war; sometimes we have to do difficult things, otherwise we wouldn't have a nation."

Father Andrew Sullivan, priest at St. Francis Catholic Church, said it is difficult to separate the legal debate from the moral one. If one believes killing is wrong inherently, then the fact of the state doing the killing makes little difference.

He says the fact that the United States, nearly alone among Western nations, persists in maintaining it as a form of punishment, calls into question not only the nature of man, but that of God.

A God of redemption calls for grace, especially for those who have committed especially horrendous crimes, because they are the ones who need forgiveness most.

"It's hard when you see someone hurt as many people as he has," Sullivan said. "It forces us to look at the hard questions of what in society created him. How did he get there? Because we as a society made him.

"If you see him as aberrant and non-human, it's an easier answer. But then, do we only value life as long as we think it's valuable? If you value all human life, then you have to fight harder for anyone who's not valued. Those are the ones we're supposed to help."

State of grace

Moore sees a dichotomy between what he calls the "law of the land" and the "law of grace."

Christians should live under the law of grace, he said. Enforcing the death penalty only brings society down to the level of a man like McVeigh.

"If we execute him, we're letting our low natures speak," Moore said. "If you think about all the things we're guilty of, we're all living in a state of grace. Christ looked beyond our faults and administered to our needs."

Moore also objects to the death penalty on more prosaic grounds. Capital punishment is as much a matter of race and class as it is about the level of one's guilt, he said, pointing out that the majority of people on death row are poor, undereducated black men.

And that, he said, sends a message to young, black men that their lives are not worth much. "Even within our own race, we discriminate," he said. "We dismiss them. We say 'Well, they probably did it.'"

Fields sees McVeigh's execution as an opportunity to speak out on social justice issues.

"If we begin to understand the love and forgiveness that man has, then we can begin to make changes in the death penalty; it will have an effect on health care, welfare, care for the poor."

Emory acknowledged the U.S. system of capital punishment is open to abuse or mistakes, but "there is no perfect system. That's not a reason to throw it out."

In order for the death penalty to be an effective mode of punishment, Emory believes it should be carried out "with sadness."

"All this public spectacle is wrong," he said, indicating the discussion over whether to televise McVeigh's execution.

"It should be done with compassion, very humanely, as much of a non-event as possible."

To Thomas, the responsibility of Christians in such a case is to share their message of redemption, even at the eleventh hour. He pointed out that the Apostle Paul was a persecutor of Christians before he became "wonderfully saved."

"Christ forgave the thief on the cross. God can forgive, if you come to him with real remorse."

A moral question

A case such as McVeigh's also calls for people of faith to pause and think about morality, Moore said. "We are called to be different," he said.

People who believe in God bear a responsibility to act as such. "I believe in a God of grace, and he doesn't need my help," Moore said.

"I don't need to be taking vengeance. The commandment was given to the people of God to love our neighbor and forgive seventy times seven. That doesn't leave me much time to pay you back."

But supporters of capital punishment point out that McVeigh showed no mercy toward his victims, nor remorse for their deaths.

"I pray for him because he has shown no remorse," Thomas said. "He has rejoiced in the deaths of those babies, and honestly, that makes it easier to support the death penalty."